Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, looks at ethical dilemmas, scandals, and best practices in government.
Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011 4:53 PM
The prospect of cities declaring bankruptcy has governors and legislators looking for solutions to rescue insolvent municipalities
. In Central Falls, Rhode Island, the answer was to demote the mayor to an advisor, and put a state-appointed receiver in charge of the city. The state now has authority for unlimited oversight.
Last July Mayor Charles D. Moreau was forced to turn in his city car, cell phone, and keys to city hall. His salary went from $71,736 to $26,000, although he has yet to be called for advice. His problems did not begin with the bankruptcy, however. Moreau is currently under investigation on state and federal corruption charges, but has refused calls for his resignation, insisting he is planning his 2013 re-election campagn.
A retired state judge is serving as receiver, trying to get the city financially on track. Cedar Falls was the first city in the state to declare insolvency, leaving both a deficit and unfunded retiree benefits. The action caused the city’s debt to plummet to junk bond status, and raised alarm in the town of 19,000.
Cedar Falls is one of thousands of small towns that might be a good candidate for consolidation. While pooling resources and sharing revenues is not always an easy transition, it seems to make sense in a city of only 1.29 square miles.
Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011 3:18 PM
When George Washington composed his Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, he advised, “every act done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those who are present.”
On this, his birthday, it is appropriate to fast forward to 2011 and another set of principles put forward by the United States Conference of Mayors.
At the recent annual meeting, 150 mayors from across the country signed a Civility Accord
proposed by Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup. The one-page document was prompted by the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others at a public event.
The pledge, also available on line for mayors to sign, asks for a commitment to the following principles:
- Respect the right of all Americans to hold different opinions;
- Avoid rhetoric intended to humiliate, de-legitimatize, or question the patriotism of those whose opinions are different from ours;
- Strive to understand differing perspectives;
- Choose words carefully;
- Speak truthfully without accusation, and avoid distortion;
- Speak out against violence, prejudice, and incivility in all their forms, whenever and wherever they occur.”
The efforts to remind us of the importance of civility in our society are especially important as partisan differences often overtake dialog. While many of the admonitions George Washington wrote seem antiquated, here is another we would call a best practice: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”
Friday, Feb. 18, 2011 3:09 PM
How much are we willing to pay for open and transparent government?
In California, the governor is suggesting cuts to the state budget that would end the funding given to local government for posting public notice of meetings
. This advance notification is part of the state’s open meeting requirements, designed to allow community input on items to be voted on by governing bodies. Public officials who violate the provisions, found in the Ralph M. Brown Act, face misdemeanor charges and may go before the local ethics commission.
The cuts are estimated to save $63 million the state owes for claims dating back to 2004. There are additional mandates that are also on the chopping block. According to a finance spokesman for the state “this wasn’t an effort to single out the Brown Act in any way, shape or form. We proposed suspension of all state mandates that weren’t involved with either public safety or property tax.”
In a time when every item in every budget is critical, we should not be cutting back on measures to ensure citizen input and transparent decision making.
Friday, Feb. 18, 2011 2:21 PM
Fact or fiction? In government, sometimes it’s hard to tell. But PolitiFact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Web site, provides an “accuracy analysis” of statements made by politicians and pundits.
You can check out the “Truth-O-Meter”
to evaluate statements and claims in the news. In addition to covering national topics, the site gives ratings for news stories in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Using an icon similar to an applause meter, the categories of truthfulness range from true to “pants on fire” which is lower than false. The site also evaluates changes or perceived changes in political opinion or position: no flip, half flip, full flop.
Coverage of the 2008 election earned PolitiFact the Pulitzer, but its simplicity and candor have earned it many followers.
Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011 3:49 PM
Think pension checks are bankrupting cities? There is another factor draining the municipal coffers. Unused vacation and sick days are being “cashed out” by public employees
, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. In many jurisdictions in California, there is no “cap” on the number of days you can accrue, allowing individuals to “roll over” unused time and collect the accumulated hours as part of leaving public service.
This has been a long-standing practice, but it came to light recently when state Controller John Chiang surveyed government salaries and benefits in the wake of the scandal in the city of Bell.
The numbers are staggering. Retired San Jose police chief Rob Davis got a check for $327,454 for his unused vacation and sick days. In San Francisco, former police chief Heather Fong was paid $303,653 for unused vacation, sick, and comp time.
These are all legal payments, part of contracts negotiated by city councils who were adding perks at a time when they could not offer pay increases. San Jose also offers some employees a vacation “sellback” program, allowing individuals to turn in up to 120 hours of vacation for cash compensation.
Times have changed but the terms of those MOU documents do not reflect current realities. The private sector generally requires vacation days to be taken, adopting a “use it or lose it” policy. Sick days are usually capped; disability programs cover longer illnesses.
In addition to considering layoffs, pay reductions, and increasing employee contribution for benefits, cities should not overlook this opportunity to save money.
Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011 2:45 PM
Friday marks the deadline for introduction of bills in the California legislature
. There is likely to be a stampede, as both freshman and veteran lawmakers try to make their mark by introducing bills. A review of laws passed in 2010 shows an interesting variety of subjects elected officials brought to the floor – the 65-page list is available online.
Among the expected, you’ll find education, veteran’s affairs, economic development, affordable housing, energy, and foster care. Predictably, there are numerous bills related to horse racing and gaming.
Among the unexpected are bills dealing with electronic cigarettes, licensing of pedicabs, commercial blood banks for animals, and self-service storage facilities.The League of California Cities anticipates more than 2,000 bills will be up for discussion in this legislative session.
While some believe the more bills you introduce the better you are as a legislator, I would argue that it is quality, not quantity that better serves the public.
Friday, Feb. 11, 2011 4:31 PM
When the mayor of Calgary took a flight to Toronto recently, a firm doing business with the city paid the $721.50 airfare. He says he took the free flight to save the city money. And despite public criticism over the Toronto trip, he’s flying to Vancouver next week, using a $659.14 ticket paid for by a leadership academy.
Expect to see more of these kinds of justifications for accepting gifts of travel. A municipal budgets are reduced to addressing basic services, travel has been all but eliminated in some cities. But this justification doesn’t pass the ethics test, regardless of Calgary’s financial constraints.
Allowing a contractor or vendor to pay for gifts of travel can compromise the independent and objective relationship needed for fair and good government. Gifts such as this can be seen as a quid pro quo or a reward for a contract. Accepting such freebies can also lead to the “slippery slope” where legitimate business trips merge with personal travel.
Fortunately the city is considering hiring ethics experts to provide guidelines for council travel, gifts, and campaign donations. Replacing the informal, unwritten policies is overdue.
Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011 4:47 PM
“Under the radar” is a term I often use for those public agencies that are not well known to the public or the press.
You may have heard about a local water board, or a board making decisions about transit, utilities, and sanitation. But some communities have "special district" boards or commissions that are responsible for mosquito abatement, cemeteries, levee maintenance, transit, fire, harbor, geologic hazard abatement, and the like.
Some members are appointed, others are elected, but all are subject to strict reporting requirements enforced by the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
The commission investigating complaints publishes a regular summary of actions, and this month one item caught my eye.
Arturo Chacon, who won a seat on the Central Basin Municipal Water District Board of Directors was just fined $30,000 for a host of violations. His election committee not only failed to file at least five separate required statements on time, it also violated several key provisions of the ethics laws, including accepting cash contributions of $100 or more and making cash expenditures of $100 or more.
The decisions made by special district board members and their administrative directors have significant impact on the day-to-day running of some of our most basic services. These individuals approve budgets, allocate funds, and set policies that our children will inherit. They should not escape the spotlight.
Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011 11:50 AM
Former state attorney general John Van de Kamp will work along with Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies who once served as general counsel to the California Fair Political Practices Commission. The review of Vernon’s government is to include a specific look at ethics, conflict of interest, and open government issues.
In the wake of several criminal investigations and indictments, an assembly bill has been introduced to disincorporate the city. Although the city has only 100 residents, it is home to some 1,800 businesses, and city administrator Mark Whitworth says “If you close the doors on the opportunities here, business are going to move out of the state or shut down altogether. We need to resolve this, and we need to move forward. If there are real issues, let’s address them.”
While the probe in underway, Vernon continues to work with lawyers and lobbyists to defeat the legislation and a possible attempt by Los Angeles to have the industrial center made a part of Los Angeles County.
Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011 2:59 PM
Could you live on $10 a day? If you are a state legislator in Alabama that is your salary. You’ll also get about $4,000 a month and $50 a day for three days each week that the legislature meets in session.
The Web site Ballotpedia
gives salary, per diem, and other information about state government. You may find the information surprising.
Not all legislatures are full time or meet year round, but it looks like the elected officials in New Hampshire are elected volunteers: they are paid $200 for a two-year term and have no per diem. And if you are elected to state office in New Mexico you receive no salary – just $159 per diem (tied to the federal rate).
Much focus has been placed on exorbitant salaries going to public employees, but with the exception of the full-time California legislature ($95,219 a year) most of the men and women at the state capitols are modestly paid.
The ongoing debate about compensating elected officials is sure to heat up again as state budgets continue to shrink. Do you think your legislator is paid a fair salary? Should he or she be given a raise, or asked to take a cut in pay to help balance the budget?
Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2011 5:23 PM
If you are caught using city property for a purpose other than city business you will probably be disciplined or fined for an ethics violation
. But one Seattle employee is unhappy about the $300 he must pay for putting a police sticker on the back of his personal car.
Joseph Benavides, who works for the city’s Department of Transportation, said when he found the 4-inch by 4-inch sticker with the Seattle Police Department logo in the traffic sign shop, he stuck one on his SUV “as an experiment” to see if it would hold up in the weather.
The black sticker differs from the standard blue one issued to the police department. “I didn’t think anything about it,” he said. An ethics complaint was filed by a whistle blower, and the executive director of the commission said the “decal in the rear window of his blue Chevy Suburban could lead to confusion over whether his car was an official police vehicle.”
After acknowledging he violated the code when he misused city property Benavides said,“ I had no idea it was wrong, none at all.”
Was the sticker small? Yes. Was the $300 fine appropriate? What do you think?
Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2011 10:24 AM
The race for mayor of Chicago has already garnered plenty of headlines, and we can expect even more coverage in the coming weeks. But an equally important election could shape the future of the city.
A staggering 240 candidates are vying for seats on the Chicago city council.
The 50 aldermen (women are also called aldermen) are elected to four-year terms and represent geographic “wards” in the city. Although they meet just once a month, they handle the same kinds of land use, traffic, public safety, and school issues facing locally elected officials in small, medium, and large cities across the country.
With a new mayor comes the opportunity for change, and voters are fortunate to have the local newspaper take interest. The editorial board of the Chicago Tribune held endorsement debates for the 43 contested seats, and began publishing their recommendations Monday, starting with the first 10 wards. It’s a sometimes dizzying description of Chicago politics, but serves as a vital source of information for the public.
In an era marked by shrinking local news coverage, when public meetings are no longer attended by “beat reporters” it is encouraging to see this kind of commitment by the newspaper. The obligation is now on the voters to take note of this research on the candidates and issues before heading to the polls.
Monday, Feb. 7, 2011 4:44 PM
Having a Facebook
page is one way public officials stay in touch with constituents. But a state representative from Connecticut found her social network included a new form of “identity theft. ”
Because State Representative Kim Hunter Rose doesn’t use the chat feature of the social network site, her friends were suspicious when messages arrived from her asking for money to pay taxes on money she had won. An unknown person had created a second, fake account using her name and photo.
This type of hijacking of identity has also been used in political campaigns, where the veil of anonymity makes it virtually impossible to track down the culprits.
Any recommendations for how to best deal with reaching the public through social media while protecting your good name? Share them in the comment section of this blog.
Friday, Feb. 4, 2011 4:00 PM
manager Kim Day has been charged by the city’s ethics board for violating the code of ethics for accepting a paid trip overseas in 2009.
Day flew to Greece, with all expenses paid by Insight Media Limited, a London company that was negotiating a contract with the airport at the time of the trip. The value of the contract was $370,000 and Day says the financial details had already been worked out when she flew to Athens.
Although she asked for advice from the ethics board in advance, notes show that the matter was discussed but no opinion was issued. The airport has reimbursed the company $5,700 for the trip.
This situation illustrates the importance of obtaining a clear, written opinion rather than relying on simple conversations. The city and the airport could have avoided the scandal and the cost if better procedures were in place to cover such “gifts” to public employees.
Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011 4:04 PM
Until recently, much of the discussion in California about medical marijuana
dispensaries centered on where they could be located. Should they, for example, be banned from areas where there are schools, teen centers, and playgrounds? The debate has expanded, as many cities are considering “licensing” the outlets and thus creating a new revenue stream to help balance budget deficits.
Oakland, California passed an ordinance in November that would allow the city to issue permits to allow industrial cannabis cultivation. Under the existing Cannabis Cultivation Ordinance, the city can issue business permits to eight large-scale cannabis growers. There are also provisions for regulating and taxing the businesses.
But growing and selling marijuana is illegal, and only allowed in California in specific circumstances. The council recently received word the city’s ordinance might get them into trouble. According to the Alameda district attorney’s office, “It remains an open question whether public officers or public employees who aid and abet or conspire to violate state or federal laws in furtherance of a city ordinance, are exempt from criminality.”
Possible revisions include safeguards meant to better comply with the law, and provisions to make sure cannabis would not be “diverted” or sold to non-patients who do not have medical marijuana cards.
One patient activist , who presented the council with three pages of her concerns, worries the problems with the ordinance could “negatively affect taxes that go to the city, and negatively affect patients.”
Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011 10:20 AM
I’m writing this while “attending” the government realignment hearings at the state capitol in Sacramento. I can be in my office and also in Sacramento thanks to a live Webcast
from The California Channel.
This video-on-demand site is funded by California cable television providers, and bills itself as “your streaming source for politcs and public affairs that shape California.”
Archived materials, such as Governor Jerry Brown’s State of the State address are available, along with subcommittee hearings, discussion from the Senate floor, interviews with legislative leaders, and more.
This kind of access to state government can provide the public and the media details about the budget shortfall that are essential to financial recovery in California. It's a great model worth replicating.
Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011 4:41 PM
Hurricanes, floods, and tornados – all take a toll on local government. But the recent blizzards in the mid-west and on the east coast serve as a reminder that there is a high cost for keeping a city functioning when you run out of money.
Some recent examples:
- New Jersey spent its entire snow removal budget of $20 million before the storm last week. Money is being borrowed from other accounts, but the state is hoping to receive more than $50 million in aid from the federal government.
- In New York City, $38.8 million was spent on the 20 inches of snow that fell in December—the full amount of funds set aside for this purpose. This does not cover the 36 inches that fell in January, or the cost of the current storm.
- Westport, Connecticut had to move 38 inches of snow from the roads, depleting not only the $400,000 budget but also exhausting city employees who have had to work round-the clock to clear streets.
- The city of Northampton, Massachusetts used to purchase snow removal insurance, but when the premiums became too expensive the city cancelled.
So while budget talks across the country will continue to focus on “essential” services such as police, fire, and education, there are many cities that will be forced to make even more difficult funding decisions in light of the unexpected and unfunded weather conditions.
Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011 11:49 AM
Few city council decisions cause more controversy than the approval of a mosque
. In the city of Temecula, California, the months-long debate ended at 3:30 a.m. with the city council’s unanimous approval for the project.
During my tenure in office the city of Santa Clara faced a similar decision. The Muslim Community Center purchased an empty office park in 1993 and petitioned the city to allow it to be converted to a mosque and Islamic day school. Debate was often heated, statements were sometimes made based on emotion rather than reason, and it was clear the community had very little knowledge of the Muslim faith. The discussion of the traffic impact was key, but sharing background and information about religious practices became as important.
I can imagine that in Temecula, where the mosque will be built next to a Baptist church, the debate was even more impassioned. The destruction of the World Trade Center towers and international news of terrorism threats prompted fear among the residents. Pastor Terrell Berry of the Orchard Christian Fellowship told the council, “It confuses us when we hear and read that many mosques are used to call its members to insurrection and jihad. We know that is not true of every mosque, but I would question this: Is it going to be true of this mosque? And if it’s not going to be true of this mosque, then demonstrate that.”
In fact, that is exactly what the Islamic Center plans to do. After the approval of the 24,943-square-foot building Imam Mahmoud Harmoush said, “Now I think we must again devote ourselves to reaching out to the community.”
I would add that it is also a good time for the community to reach out to the mosque.
Monday, Jan. 31, 2011 3:50 PM
While political news “inside the Beltway” is standard fare, Prince George’s County
in nearby Maryland has been in the headlines as well.
A new county executive, Rushern L. Baker has replaced Jack Johnson, who left office after his indictment on federal corruption charges. “Pay-to-play” was so ingrained in the county government that ending the cycle has been compared to “untying a Gordian knot.”
“It is very important that we should focus on these concerns,” said former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke, who chairs the Accountability, Compliance, and Integrity Advisory Board. He said it is important for people to know what is going on, and for the political leaders to learn “how citizens feel about what is going on.”
The panel will consider a wide range of tools to increase transparency in government, including publishing public documents online. A priority will be examining the establishment of a hotline, identified by the panel as “a deficiency that inhibits rooting out waste, fraud and abuse .”
Friday, Jan. 28, 2011 2:52 PM
in this week’s New Yorker
magazine shows a teacher explaining the three branches of government – executive, legislative, and judicial. A student raises his hand and asks “What about business—which branch is that?”
Good question. Over the past 15 years the role of business in government has changed from one of partnership to one of privatization. People began to ask why government couldn’t act more like a business, not understanding there are fundamental differences in both the purpose and structure of each.
One government service up for debate is the potential privatization of Detroit’s municipal water and sewer system. Setting aside the merits of both sides of the argument, I will focus on what I call the “accountability factor.”
While government operations may not be perfect, they are intended to be transparent. Contracts are to be fairly bid, work completed on time and within budget. Any slip-ups are subject to public scrutiny, and in some cases, lead to sanctions. The costs are out in the open, and the obligation is to serve the community, not the shareholders.
As budgets continue to shrink and the cost of services continue to rise, it will be important for government and business to begin to work together again. There is the possibility that such an arrangement would bring “the best of both worlds.”